Fitness entrepreneur Ally Davidson’s CV features one item that’s proven a real conversation starter: Grand Champion, NBC’s American Gladiators. A decade ago, without telling her fiancé, she spent the morning of her wedding day trying out for the show. A former two-sport athlete at Texas State University, she did 14 pull-ups and ran a 40-yard dash at the auditions, then raced to the church without even showering before the ceremony. She eventually won the show’s second season and used the $100,000 prize to launch Camp Gladiator, which hosts group workout boot-camp-style classes outdoors in unconventional spaces. With $42.2 million in revenue in 2017, 950 trainers, 75 full-time employees, and classes in six states, she’s turned reality television stardom into a business that has appeared on Inc.’s list of the fastest-growing companies in the nation and landed her on Glassdoor’s list of best CEOs.
“Reality show fame can be fleeting, and my husband and I joke, ‘Man, we sure have squeezed out every ounce of publicity out of the American Gladiators show, haven’t we? But we were given an opportunity and knew it was once in a lifetime,” says Davidson, who grew up in Austin but was working in ad sales in Dallas when she auditioned for the show in 2007. “But it hasn’t been the reason for the success of the business. We’ve succeeded because of our hustle, our grit, and our determination. What’s funny is that nowadays I get recognized way more as being the CEO of Camp Gladiator than I ever did being on American Gladiators.”
Davidson’s business is built around popping up high-intensity group workouts in city parks, school fields, and church parking lots. By using public spaces, overhead is low, and classes are more conveniently located for customers than if the business were built around brick-and-mortar operations like most of Camp Gladiator’s competitors. Behind the scenes, Davidson believes that the Christian faith she shares with her husband (and co-CEO) Jeff makes for another competitive advantage. She says they run Camp Gladiator based on biblical principles.
“I think it changes everything about the way that we look at things, because we’re going to ask questions,” Davidson says. “Are we doing this thing for the right reasons? Does this opportunity positively impact, ultimately, the lives as many people as possible? Are we doing this because of our own success or recognition for short-term gain, or are we doing this because it really is to serve other people and accomplish our mission? And so when you look at it from that framework, sometimes you end up making the harder decision. But I think the harder decision is so often what is better for the company and its people in the long run.”
On this week’s National Podcast of Texas, Davidson discusses the psychology the fitness industry uses to motivate clients, explains why women in particular seem to embrace boot-camp style fitness, and breaks down the economic reality of the traditional fitness business’s reliance on locking customers into long contracts.
Some highlights (edited and condensed for clarity):
We’re competing against people being complacent and not wanting to get off the couch. They want to binge-watch television, but there’s a lot of things that compete. But I think the thing that people realize is that they can never be the best version of themselves if they don’t take care of the way that they feel. People are going to be in relationships with a spouse or with kids or go to work, and they want to feel good when they go do that stuff. And so I think that’s the thing we have going for us, is they know they need to do something. But we have to fight that desire that people have to not move. One of the hardest things is getting people off the couch or getting them out of bed early in the morning and convincing them to come after work and get their workout in. And what they all say is, when they do come, they’re so happy because they’re more productive afterwards.
On Camp Gladiator’s gender imbalance
It’s about 75 percent female. It’s interesting because it seems to be that the females are more open to trying things, especially in a group type setting and especially when it comes to fitness. And so generally what happens is the female signs up first, and then finally, after a month or two, she finally convinces her spouse or her boyfriend or her guy friend to come join her out there. And then he ends up falling in love with it as well. But it’s just a little bit more difficult on the front end to get the guys out there. And traditional gyms probably skew a little bit more male. And that’s probably because those settings do more individual-based workouts. Men want a more individual experience, I think, because that’s all that they’ve known for decades. They believe the way to work out is to show up to a gym, go lift a couple weights on your own, and leave. Plug your headphones in, do your own thing. But people are bored with that. People want to be outside. They’re inside all day. They want to be with community. They might not know that because they never experienced it. Our goal is to get people out of the gyms. Some people have a lot of success in gyms. Some people have a great routine, and it works well for them, and that’s fantastic. But a lot of other people, obviously if you look at obesity trends in America, it’s not working for. For whatever reason, women know that they need something in their life to keep them feeling good.
On avoiding accidents and injuries
I think when you’re young, you don’t have to think about that stuff. When you’re in your 20s, you’re not getting injured too much. I think what happens to all of us is: you get a job, start sitting a lot more, and you start being a lot less active overall. And then you go out there, maybe doing something that’s like a weekend warrior type thing, thinking that you still have the body that you had five or 10 years ago. And, before you know it, you’ve had an injury, and then once you’ve had an injury, it’s hard because your body is just not quite the same. But everybody’s going to have injuries. You have to kind of expect that’s part of life, especially as you get, you know, 30s, 40s, 50s. But I think that if you can stay in good shape and have your body be strong, while you can’t always prevent an accident or injury, you can come out of it a lot quicker, a lot more healthy, if you’re in good shape and strong before that kind of stuff happens.
On running a Christian business
What we say is that we are a business in which the founders try to build the business based on biblical principles. We are Christians: my husband, myself, and lot of our founding key players of the company. And we love that we live in a country where we can say that. And we can say we’re going to run this company as best we can. Of the biblical principles, the main one that we can all agree on, regardless of your background or your religious beliefs, is really to serve others and to treat others how you would want to be treated. You don’t have to be a Christian to work at Camp Gladiator. Absolutely not. You can come from any background, any beliefs. Obviously our campers come from all kinds of backgrounds. We say this is a welcoming, warm environment where you’re going to feel loved. And so I think people appreciate that, and they’ve come up to us, even if they’re a different religious background, and said, ‘Hey, thank you guys for just letting me know what you stand for.’ Because I think a lot of times, especially today, people won’t really tell you maybe who they are, what they stand for, what their beliefs are. But if you can come out and be upfront with that and honest with people, I think that they, they appreciate it.
Camp Gladiator has partnered with the Texas Rangers for a Stadium Takeover happening at Arlington’s Globe Life Park on Saturday, March 2. For tickets and more information see www.campgladiator.com